A wide variety of ethnic groups live side by side in The Gambia with a
minimum of inter-tribal friction, each preserving its own language and
traditions. The Mandinka tribe is the largest, followed by the Fula,
Wolof, Jola, and Serahuli. Approximately 2,500 non-Africans live in
The Gambia, including Europeans and many families of Lebanese origin.
Muslims constitute over 95 percent of the population. Christians of
different denominations account for most of the remainder. Gambians
officially observe the holidays of both religions and practice religious
More than 80 percent of Gambians live in rural villages, although more
and more young people come to the capital in search of work and
education. While urban migration, development projects, and
modernization are bringing more and more Gambians into contact with
Western habits and values, the traditional emphasis on the extended
family, as well as indigenous forms of dress and celebration, remain
integral parts of everyday life.
The Gambia was once part of the Empire of Ghana and the Kingdom of
the Songhais. The first written accounts of the region come from
records of Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. Arab traders
established the trans-Saharan trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory. In
the 15th century, the Portuguese took over this trade using maritime
routes. At that time, The Gambia was part of the Kingdom of Mali.
In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, Antonio, Prior of Crato,
sold exclusive trade rights on The Gambia River to English merchants;
this grant was confirmed by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I. In
1618, James I granted a charter to a British company for trade with The
Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th, England and
France struggled continuously for political and commercial supremacy
in the regions of the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The 1783 Treaty of
Versailles gave Great Britain possession of The Gambia, but the French
retained an enclave at Albreda on the north bank of the river (ceded to
the United Kingdom in 1857).
As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the region
during the 3 centuries that the trade operated. It is not known how
many were taken by Arab traders. Most of those taken were sold to
Europeans by other Africans; some were prisoners of inter-tribal wars,
some were sold because of unpaid debts, while others were kidnapped.
Slaves were initially sent to Europe to work as servants until the market
for labor expanded in the West Indies and North America in the 18th
century. In 1807, slave trading was abolished throughout the British
empire, and the British tried unsuccessfully to end the slave traffic in
The Gambia. They established the military post of Bathurst (now
Banjul) in 1816. In the ensuing years, Banjul was at times under the
jurisdiction of the governor general in Sierra Leone. In 1888, The
Gambia became a separate entity again.
An 1889 agreement with France established the present boundaries,
and The Gambia became a British Crown Colony, divided for
administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the
surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory). The
Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901 and
gradually progressed toward self-government. A 1906 ordinance
During World War II, Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma,
and Banjul served as an air stop for the US Army Air Corps and a port
of call for allied naval convoys. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt
stopped overnight in Banjul en route to and from the Casablanca
Conference in 1943, marking the first visit to the African continent by
an American president in office.
After World War II, the pace of constitutional advance quickened, and
following general elections in 1962, full internal self-government was
granted in 1963.The Gambia achieved independence on February 18, 1965, as a
constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. Shortly
thereafter, the government proposed conversion from a monarchy to a
republic with an elected president replacing the British monarch as
chief of state. The proposal failed to receive the two-thirds majority
required to amend the constitution, but the results won widespread
attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia's observance of secret
balloting, honest elections, and civil rights and liberties. On April 24,
1970, The Gambia became a republic following a majority-approved referendum.
Until a military coup in July 1994, The Gambia was led by President
Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who wasre-elected five times. The relative
stability of the Jawara era was broken first in a violent coup attempt
in 1981. The coup was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who, on two
occasions, had unsuccessfully sought election to parliament. After a
week of violence which left severalhundred dead, Jawara, in London
when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese
troops defeated the rebel force.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia
signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The result, the Senegambia
Confederation, aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the
two nations and unify economies and currencies. The Gambia
withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC)
seized power in a military coup d'etat. The AFPRC deposed the
democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Captain
Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.
The AFPRC has announced a transition schedule for return to
democratic, civilian government before the end of 1996. It has denied
its intention to stay in power and, although delayed, has proceeded with
the transition timetable. Presidential elections are scheduled for
September 11, 1996.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1996
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